‘Contesting Identity and the Meta-praxis of Drawing’, paper presented by Anthony Auerbach in The Practice of Drawing and the Construction of Artistic Identity, chaired by Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, College Art Association Annual Conference, New York, 15 February 2007.
The meta-praxis of drawing is an approach which reflects on its own conditions of production and reception. It is both an internal affair and a transgression of the norm because it tends to highlight aspects of drawing which have been conventionalised in artistic practice — geometry, for example, or pornography — as other than art. In this paper, I discuss the late graphic works of Josef Albers (1888–1976) and works by Fiona Banner (1966–), which exhibit procedures and strategies of production which challenge conventional expectations of artistic drawing. I suggest how drawing has been used to elaborate a critique of identity and why it calls for a cross-disciplinary interpretation.
This paper has not yet been published.
‘No smock, no skylight, no studio, no palette, no easel, no brushes, no medium, no canvas, [...] no variation in texture or “matière”, no personal handwriting, no stylisation, no tricks, no “twinkling of the eyes,”’ (40) [note 1] reports Elaine de Kooning in her article ‘Albers Paints a Picture’. The words belong to Josef Albers and ‘... Paints a Picture’ was a long-running feature of Art News in which each month a reporter visited a different artist in his studio to discuss his practice [note 2]. The articles were accompanied by photographs of the artist at work amid the paraphernalia of the artistic interior, very often with particular devotion paid to palettes, brushes, easels, sketches and so on.
In Art News, ‘... Paints a Picture’ was the only regular editorial feature dedicated to art practice and technique, but a glance at the advertising pages suggests that art-practitioners formed a significant proportion of the readership. Ads for materials and equipmentmade their appeal at least partly by identification with the traditional image of the artist, for instance with Rembrandt-branded colours or Sargent-branded brushes ‘For the most exacting artist ...’ [note 3]. The editorial line of photographs of professional artists at work lent support and authenticity to such images. [note 4]
Albers clearly knew the form and got his point across in both words and images [note 5]. He is shown, seated in a nondescript interior in a white shirt, with just a knife in one hand and a paint tube in the other.
Albers could have added to his list repudiating the stereotypical attributes of the artist, no drawing — if it were not for the faint lines which circumscribed the zones of colour in his painting [note 6]. In form, these marks merely echoed the shape of material square of the painting’s hardboard support and in function were only a guide for applying the paint. All but obliterated in the process, in Homage to the Square, drawing was left with no more than a virtual existence at the labile boundaries between the colours.
For all Albers’s insistence that ‘someone else could have executed it’ (40), what remains of drawing induces the writer to state, with the conviction of a connoisseur:
This conclusion honours both Albers and drawing (not to mention the writer herself) according to the legend of Apelles and Protogenes, Pliny’s tale of artistic recognition and rivalry in which the master of Rhodes identified his visitor unmistakably in the mere trace of a fine, straight line. Or put another way: the tale of how a line alone, without burden of representation, could be entirely adequate as a calling card, provided the caller is sufficiently distinguished and the called-on sufficiently perceptive. Thus Apelles paid homage to Protogenes in leaving his mark and recouped it in the latter’s recognition (in this case also exacting tribute for not-to-be-outdone virtuosity).
The story was promoted by Renaissance art theorists as the epitome of connoisseurship, confirming both ‘the intimate identification of the artist with his mark’ [note 7] and the challenge for the connoisseur, being (again, as David Rosand puts it) ‘to discover the man behind the mark’ [note 8]
The contestation of artistic identity Albers staged for Art News clearly did not persuade the reporter and in any case could not avoid self-contradiction [note 9] Like everyone else, Albers provided his autograph signature for the heading of the article and its publication doubtless helped establish Homage to the Square as his trademark. The radical counterpart to Albers’s protestations as a painter, I think, is in his drawing practice.
But how could a radical contestation of artistic identity be possible in drawing when it was the mere vestige of drawing — drawing on the verge of redundancy — which betrayed the artist’s hand, his intentions and his identity? An answer will require a hypothesis (with a historical excursus) and my own account of Albers’s graphic practice. [note 10] I will probe the question further in looking at recent works by Fiona Banner and with some comments on my own practice, try to suggest how it remains an open question.
Prominent among the various functions of drawing in the field of art is the performance of artistic identity. Claims for the primacy of drawing tend to assert this function over all others, irrespective of the pragmatic context of particular drawings. The autograph drawing is privileged as if it were an immediate trace or direct expression of the experience, idea or essential character of the artist. The autograph is accepted as the warranty of the presence of the artist, his individual and his universal virtues. The ideology of the autograph (as it may be called) has lost none of its force in binding the notion of artistic identity formed around the idea of the genius to the practice of drawing.
It is appropriate to speak of ideology when one considers the rhetorical and institutional apparatus which was developed to defend this supposedly self-evident notion. For, in the wider field of drawing, artistic identity is far from secure. Drawing in general is not the exclusive domain of artists and does not necessarily support artistic claims. An ideological apparatus serves to define the scope and the limits of art, that is, to define what kinds of drawing will be recognised as artistic — whether original to art or appropriated from other disciplines — and to legitimise the repertoire of accepted drawing practices. This canon is reflected in the materials and equipment the artist is supposed to possess as much for their emblematic as their practical function. [note 11]
An artist cannot be expected to jump over his or her shadow, but the insecurity of artistic identity in the interdisciplinary — indeed disputed [note 12] — field of drawing suggests how drawing offers a space in which to elaborate a critique of identity. I would like to describe how Albers’s and Banner’s works exhibit procedures and strategies of production which challenge conventional expectations of artistic drawing. The meta-praxis of drawing (of my title) is an approach which reflects on its own conditions of production and reception. It is both an internal affair and a transgression of the norm because it tends to highlight aspects of drawing which have been conventionalised in artistic practice — geometry, for example, or pornography — as other than art.
Structural Constellations was what Albers called a series of graphic works he began around 1950, about the same time as Homage to the Square. From the point of view of conventional artistic practice, Albers’s graphic methods and materials were unorthodox, not to say perverse. The works he exhibited were machine-engraved vinylite panels done by a commercial sign-maker. Like the name-plates for which this material was normally used, the design was cut into the black surface with a router to reveal a white layer underneath. Albers also made finished pen and ink drawings for presentation and reproduction. While the works he exhibited were not hand-made by the artist, Albers appears to have faked the reproductions of them by substituting negative copies of these autograph drawings in place of photographs of the engraved panels. The artist thus aimed to approximate by hand the anonymous work of the machine. At the end of the 1960s Albers’s had Structural Constellations made as inkless intaglio prints and in the 1970s he also adapted the designs for architectural-scale installations in stainless steel and other materials.
Behind the scenes, Albers made a large number of working drawings from pocket-notebook sketches to one-to-one and scaled drawings annotated for the engravers and other fabricators. Albers preferred loose-leaf Filofax notebooks with squared paper over traditional sketchbooks which would not have allowed him so easily to copy, transfer, re-order and edit his studies. He used tracing paper for exploring and comparing variants and, for larger drawings, various kinds of graph- or ‘cross-section’ paper ruled with a grid. Albers’s materials are the sort one would sooner expect to find in a drawing office than in an artist’s studio. But while his finished works were machine-made or looked like mechanical drawings, Albers did not use drawing machines such as parallel motion devices which were the normal equipment of engineering draftsmen. [note 13]
Albers’s legacy leaves a number of obstacles in the path of traditional scholarship (the catalogue I assembled of more than 1,500 drawings is probably one of them), partly because it is all-too-transparent and partly because his methods suggest a self-contained play, apparently without origin or referent.
One of the biggest challenges Structural Constellations would present to the connoisseur, and his inheritors the art historian and the critic, stems from an aspect of procedure which they share with Homage to the Square. This procedure — the series — continues without development, without coming closer to a conclusion or the realisation of some larger goal. Series makes traditional art-historical research useless because it leaves hardly any questions of attribution, and no prospect of a possible chronological ordering of the materials disclosing any self-evident history or progress.
But this is not the only reason Structural Constellations seem to have been neglected. According to Clement Greenberg,
There would be a lot to disentangle in that statement if I were doing an analysis of Greenberg instead of Albers. I would like to highlight just one aspect of Albers’s work which, though it seems to have been an annoyance to Greenberg, nonetheless delivers the critic’s historical judgement, namely: the appearance of geometry.
The appearance of geometry as a distinctive feature of the art of the post-Cubist avant-gardes — Bauhaus circles included — attests to its enduring role in the construction of artistic identity. Euclid’s postulate, ‘To draw a straight line from any point to any point’ and other, more or less explicit appeals to graphic construction in his Elements seemed ample justification for the ‘natural’ affinity between geometry and art. However, it is as a discourse rather than as a practice that geometry was established at the inception of the model of artistic identity which has dominated western culture since the Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti launched his campaign for the promotion of painting from the mechanical arts to the liberal arts (like music or astronomy, under the aegis of geometry) with a literary homage to Euclid. His treatise On Painting opens with an account, in Euclidean terms, of the geometry of appearance. Although the practical rules Alberti describes for making pictures which display geometry do not actually require any mathematics, he emphasises (echoing the legendary motto of the Platonic Academy), ‘It would please me if the painter were as learned as possible in all the liberal arts, but first of all I desire that he know geometry.’ [note 15] Alberti’s rhetoric succeeded in establishing the prototype of the modern freelance artist as an educated man, worthy of the respect of high society and purveyor of portable cultural goods, specifically rectangular pictures. The ‘quadrangle of right angles [...] which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint,’ as Alberti says, [note 16] proposed a relationship between the picture and the world, under what we would call central projection, whose implied truth-claim was guaranteed not just by the authority of Euclid, but by the rational necessity of geometry. The painter should therefore be admired not only for his skill but for his higher knowledge. Alberti described how painters could demonstrate this through drawing (without actually going to the trouble of meticulous geometric construction) and how patrons could recognise it. His rhetoric also succeeded in dissimulating aspects of projection which would not necessarily support his epistemological claims.
Later, Albrecht Dürer acknowledged both Euclid and the Italians in the introduction to his Underweysung der Messung by ceremoniously prefacing his treatise with the suggestion that those who already have a thorough knowledge of geometry could ‘dispense with what follows [...], because it is written for the young and for those who lack a devoted instructor.’ [note 17]. What followed however was not a version of the Elements for artists, but a series of exercises in what would come to be called ‘geometrical drawing’, affirming an equivalence between graphic constructions with compass and straight edge [note 18] and geometry as such.
Karen-edis Barzman has pointed out the disciplinary character — in the Foucauldian sense — of geometry for the Florentine Academy: how the incorporation of geometry in the concept of disegno and in the institution’s programme helped stabilise and lend coherence to the Academy as a collective. [note 19]
Enthusiasm for geometry seemed to place almost limitless powers in the hands of the artist, especially if backed by the analogy which compared geometry with the notion of the autograph, proposing geometry as the trace of the mind of God.
Geometry did not come to prominence in the critical reception of Cubism because it was modern. It should be remembered that the term ‘cubism’ was coined from a phrase intended as an insult for Braque, whose paintings seemed to Louis Vauxcelles an abuse of the ‘l’esprit géométrique’. [note 20] From the ensuing disputes, which continued until the 1930s, it is clear — despite the increasingly tangled logic of the arguments — that for the rival modernists, taking possession of geometry seemed the key to asserting their artistic credentials and their rightful place in history.
The straight lines and symmetrical forms of Structural Constellations seem to evoke nothing other geometry, and yet their puzzling, unstable forms mock the promises and the powers ascribed to geometry by the perspective paradigm in force since the Renaissance and by what we could call modernist fundamentalism. Stubbornly superficial and unframed, Structural Constellations systematically frustrate the habits of looking in which we are schooled. Despite the fact that they remain incoherent as representations, Structural Constellations lure the viewer into the apperception of depth. Their impossibility or their undecideability as representations is only the preliminary to a further perturbation: of the role of the artist as seer and drawing — allied with geometry — as his medium. Albers’s ‘geometry’ is closer to the absurd geometries of Duchamp and Picabia than it is to the earnest — if far-fetched — theories of Kandinsky and Mondrian with whose works Albers’s are more often associated. Structural Constellations offer neither a true representation of the real, nor a representation of the truth behind, or hidden by reality. Albers’s geometrical hoax is perpetrated against geometry as it is traditionally understood in the context of art. Instead of asserting the presence of the artist, an erudite practice or the essence of things, the works interpellate the viewer in his or her subjectivity and implicate the devices in which viewing is embedded. The prankish quality of the work — its apparent pointlessness — comes from its not laying claim to higher truth or authority over the viewer.
In describing how drawing was invested with the burden of artistic identity, I did not try to modify the gender of historical personae such as the artist, the genius, the connoisseur and the patron. Arguably, the ideology of the autograph and its institutional apparatus can be seen as asserting and privileging a masculine subject and thus appropriating the ‘essence’ of artistic identity as a male domain. As entrenched as the assertion is historically, it remains vulnerable, for just as drawing in general does not necessarily support artistic claims, projecting artistic identity beyond the traditional crafts of painting and sculpture puts it beyond the reach of the labour regulations which reserved this work for men.
Fiona Banner’s practice stages a contestation of identity in the field of drawing, which I think would be difficult to perform in the full costume of a painter or sculptor. As graphic practice, hers is as vulnerable as any to the encroachments of practices other than art. The difference is, Banner makes a point of the permeability of the boundaries which define artistic practice. Her work discloses the contradictions of artistic identity and makes them her own. Banner stumbles, and makes you stumble over the fact that drawing was promoted in the historical construction of artistic identity in order to advance universal claims, while maintaining a professional regime of exclusion on the basis of gender, class and education; and moreover that the graphic practices excluded from the definition of art are hardly separable from the ones promoted to distinguish the artist from other men.
Banner’s strategy, however, does not entail the revaluation of traditionally female crafts, nor does it approach drawing as the ‘polite and useful art’ promoted (under the tutelage of male artists) as a hobby for middle class ladies in the nineteenth century. [note 21] Instead of accepting it as a burden she should bear as a woman, she throws the weight of gender back onto the inherited notion of artistic identity. For Banner, drawing is an instrument of looking.
Whereas the ‘personal handwriting’ Albers rejected was just a metaphor for the identity-function of the autograph, Banner deploys writing literally — often her own handwriting — in direct contravention of the ban which defines visual art. This writing is without literary pretensions, indeed it is almost unreadable. It is a graphic expedient which serves to underline and to sidestep the impossibility of depiction. Banner’s script mediates her desire to arrest and inspect a sight, to expose herself to it and to consume it. Her work Top Gun (1994) — prompted by the urge to get hold of images of fighter planes — is not a stand-in for the script of the movie, nor an account of the movie, it is an account of watching the movie. It is also a stubborn and illegible object, a screen of text which marks off the object of desire and makes it invisible. This work, and others like it recording war films and porno-movies, [note 22] attest to the allure of these films and to the frustration and disappointment produced by images which continually escape the watcher’s gaze. These films provide a stream of images which can hardly be torn from the banality of their reproduction, or separated from their disciplinary function in affirming the rules of identification: us and them, hero and victim, male and female, subject and object.
What is at stake for Banner is subjectivity. She plays back the violence of images against images of violence and moreover against the properties of art. She brings the violence of images to the surface and defaces the surface meant for images by writing on it (sometimes also slashing or cutting it). In occupying the place reserved for images, Banner’s descriptions implicate the conventional character of drawing and suggest how, for all drawing’s reputed immediacy, the art-viewer is nonetheless dependent on a running commentary (discourse). Banner withholds the image she did not capture and denies the viewer entry to the fictive space of the picture.
Banner’s recent works confront the construction of artistic identity on which her own education as an artist was founded. Life-drawing class was the mainstay of the foundation course Fiona and I both attended at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in the mid-1980s. I hardly need emphasise either the disciplinary role of life-drawing in the academic tradition or gender roles it assigned. But it is worth pointing out how standards of drawing preserve traditional gender roles in a mixed school. The notion of ‘good drawing’ normalises the relations of representation embodied in the traditional life class. While it claims legitimacy as an objective criterion — a quality of the drawing as an object — ‘good drawing’ has more to do with affirming the subject whose work upholds the approved notion of artistic identity. The assertion of female subjectivity would implicate the standards of drawing (as conversely a critique of drawing implicates gender relations).
Banner’s nudes reprise the graphic strategy of her trespass on the male territory of war and pornography and literally stage the contestation of identity: demonstrating her apparatus of looking as a performance; confronting the viewer with bodies of text standing or reclining in the room; and, returning to her ‘first love’, inscribing her inspection on dismembered parts of fighter planes.
I must have believed that my aptitude for drawing would be my best qualification for becoming an artist. My short career as an art student did not disillusion me on this score and, in fact, supported the idea to the extent that I felt encouraged in my decision to quit art school and devote myself to drawing, which of course did not help my art career. Having managed to get in to art school and out again on the strength of drawing, I discovered the practice had less to offer as means of stabilising identity than as a means of questioning it and crossing boundaries.